Apparently there’s a new fad in New York City these days–discussing the virtues of crop rotation. Who would have thought that such a recreational activity would have captured the hearts of residents in our nation’s largest city?

In recent months there have been not one, but two dissertations on the opinion pages of The New York Times bemoaning the lack of crop rotation in Midwest agriculture. Admittedly, I’m not a regular reader of The New York Times; that would imply a high standard of culture and worldliness on my part–something even my marginal acquaintances know not to be the case.

I do, however, know people with refined culture and worldly knowledge who thankfully like to share these sort articles with me. Sometimes I find time to read them during commercial breaks of The Three Stooges reruns.

Our first opinion column, “A Simple Fix for Farming,” comes from Mark Bittman, a food journalist by trade. Though unlikely he authored the headline, the words “simple” and “farming” should only be found together in a dictionary; other contexts merely hoist a red flag with me.

Bittman begins by saying, “It’s becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals. And I’m not talking about imposing some utopian vision of small organic farms on the world. Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use – if it wants to.”

The foundational premise of the article is based on some recent research done at Iowa State University’s Marsden Farm. The project compared several different crop rotations: corn-soybean, corn-soybean-oats, and corn-soybean-oats-alfalfa.

Among the findings were that longer crop rotations produced 4 percent higher corn yields; required less purchased nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides; and posed a reduced threat to freshwater pollution. The profitability of the various rotation systems was deemed equivalent.

Bittman described these results as “stunning” and seemed bothered that the study was “largely ignored” by media and the scientific journals. He apparently also thinks that plopping up some new livestock facilities and growing alfalfa is a fairly minor adjustment.

Our second opinion column for consideration comes from non-fiction, rural life author and The New York Times editorial board member, Verlyn Klinkenborg. “Did Farmers of the Past Know More Than We Do?” was his recent commentary on the benefits of crop rotation.

“Modern agriculture is driven by diminishing biological diversity and relentless consolidation, from the farms themselves to the processors and the distributors of the crops and livestock,” Klinkenborg opines. “But you cannot consolidate the soil. It is a complex organism, and it always responds productively to diversity. The way we farm now undervalues and undermines good soil.”

Klinkenborg asserts that the crop rotations used by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were superior to those of today’s modern farmer.

Several thoughts come to mind after reading these two commentaries. The fact that crop rotation was proven to be a beneficial agricultural management practice is not new and certainly not “stunning.” Additionally, crop rotation is something of a relative term. A corn-soybean rotation may not be as beneficial as a rotation that also includes alfalfa, but it beats a monoculture of corn, soybean or wheat by a lot.

Standing CornThe reality of the situation is that not every Midwest farmer desires to raise livestock; hence, there is not the need to grow rotational forage crops. Similarly, I’m guessing not too many food journalists, if given the choice, desire to also write the automobile maintenance column or obituaries each week.

Researchers and farmers are always exploring methods to improve soil health and quality–even for corn-soybean rotations. The use of reduced tillage systems and cover crops are just a couple of examples. The corn-soybean rotation can be, but doesn’t have to be detrimental to the soil or environment.

Finally, these commentaries got me to thinking how fortunate we are in Wisconsin, and specifically here in Fond du Lac and surrounding counties. This is as close to ground zero for crop rotation as it gets. Even those farms without livestock often incorporate a cereal crop like winter wheat into crop rotations. Further, many commercial vegetables are grown. Dairy farms, even the big ones, must grow alfalfa, which provides both fiber in the ruminant diet and offers the soil enhancing benefits cited by both columnists.

Society has the right to demand farmers operate within the confines of science-based environmental protection policies. It does not have the right to tell individuals what to grow or that each must feed livestock.

Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County

Stuff you can do with this post